“Oklahoma Nights” is a very appropriate song to open a Jimmy Webb album. The quintessential American songwriter of his generation, Jimmy Webb is a native of Elk City in the 46th state of the United States. In fact, it is “Oklahoma Nights” that opens Just Across the River, a new release that could most likely become the singer-songwriter’s career-defining album.
The man whose words and music have been interpreted by four generations of music icons has corralled ten legendary voices in pop and country to join him on revisiting some of his most cherished compositions. Unlike the celebrity-as-brand methodology of other “duets” projects, Just Across the River not only reflects the personal histories that Jimmy Webb actually shares with each artist but also the unique affection that each artist has for Webb’s oeuvre.
Producer Fred Mollin initially endeavored to keep the project a low-budget affair, ensconcing Webb at Sound Emporium in Nashville for a two-day recording session with the city’s finest musicians. Inviting Vince Gill, with whom Webb had written “Oklahoma Rising” for the state’s centennial, to sing on “Oklahoma Nights” created a ripple effect of other artists expressing interest in the project. Journeying solo on three songs, Webb partnered with many of his own peers and admirers on the remaining ten cuts. Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler, Lucinda Williams, and noted Jimmy Webb enthusiasts Glen Campbell and Linda Ronstadt were among the special guests who lent their voice to the album.
The album’s homespun quality brings each song back to its essential emotional elements, making Just Across the River a musical craftwork of the highest caliber. Both Jimmy Webb and Fred Mollin exercised considerable care in curating Just Across the River. Of course, the multiple Grammy Award-winning songs Jimmy Webb has penned—“Up, Up and Away” (The 5th Dimension), “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (Glen Campbell), “MacArthur Park” (Richard Harris), “Highwayman” (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson)—constitute only a small portion of his deep catalog of songs, some of which had already been recast on his Ten Easy Pieces(1996) album that Fred Mollin also produced.
In addition to classics like “Wichita Lineman” and “All I Know”, Webb also revisits his most recent composition, “Where Words End”. He wrote the song especially for Johnny Rivers on his Shadows of the Moon (2009) album. “I told him the story about what I’d gone through when I lost my mother”, says Rivers, one of the earliest champions of Webb’s songwriting (see For the Love of Jimmy). “I went and sat on this mountain at a place in Big Sur in the middle of the night. I just sat there and waited for the sunrise. He took the story and wrote it in a really beautiful, poetic way. He actually came out to California and played on it. It’s one of those songs that didn’t need any kind of orchestration. I loved the simplicity.”
Jimmy Webb is as fascinating a conversationalist as he is a songwriter. His answers to questions are like colorful threads of life experiences that interlace into one tapestry. Talking about “Where Words End”, in particular, not only leads to a discussion about Johnny Rivers, but also his observations about the gift of silence, the media’s obsession with disaster, and his friendship with both Richard Harris and Harry Nilsson.
There’s such an intimacy in both his singing and his storytelling that Just Across the River could be subtitled Just Across the Table, for that’s how close you feel to Jimmy Webb after speaking with him or listening to him harmonize with Michael McDonald. On a recent spring afternoon, Jimmy Webb reached “across the table” (actually, the telephone) to remember how the boy from Elk City got to Nashville.
It’s been such a joy to spend some time with Just Across the River. The album sounds very much like a family: you and the musicians and the vocalists.
I appreciate you using the word “family” because it really was not as contrived as it might seem on the surface. When you first see it you think, Not another one of these celebrity albums!, but it really didn’t start out that way. It turned into a communal experience.
It seems like every artist is purposeful. There’s an actual history with each singer and the song.
I appreciate you taking note of that. Sometimes there’s an extensive history. There’s a respect for the material. I’m glad that it makes you feel that the artists belong with the material because in a lot cases, these artists are singing songs that are their personal favorite. “Galvaston” is one of Lucinda’s favorite songs. That holds true for almost all the cuts.
What I thought was really interesting was Glen Campbell and you doing “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”...
We had never recorded together on any track. We’d made lots of records together and sometimes made whole albums together but we’d never sung together. We were in Nashville doing a concert with the Nashville Philharmonic at the Schermerhorn Concert Hall down there. At the risk of being immodest, it was really a wonderful concert. Everybody had a wonderful time, including us. My producer Freddy Mollin was driving me back to my hotel and he said, “You realize Glen Campbell is here. We could have him sing ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ with you. It would be a historical moment.” I said, “Let’s do it.” So, everything kind of fell into place that way.
It’s such a joyful experience. It really put the fun back in making records for me. To be honest with you, for awhile that’s kind of been missing. I was beginning to feel “over-technologied.” If you can tune everything and if you don’t have a real drummer, and you’re doing everything in segments, it’s not in real time. It’s all sort of disconnected and spread out all over the place. The idea of cutting 13 tracks in two days sounded great. The big surprise for me was that it sounded so great. Fred had really done what he promised to do, which was to hand pick the best musicians in Nashville. It proved kind of difficult because most of them have road gigs with mega-country artists and they have day jobs. It was hard to get them all in the same room. Freddy managed to do that. They were two absolutely wonderful days.
It’s like musical nourishment, listening to the album. This is what, to me, the epitome of songwriting and the expression of a song can be with the right musicians. When everything works, the result is something like Just Across the River. It’s the perfect synthesis of the right elements.
Thank you so much.
I was really happy to see “Do What You Gotta Do” on there. I almost didn’t listen to it because whenever I hear that song—I knew Roberta Flack’s version of it first—it just brings me to tears. I’d love to know what that song means to you now versus when you first wrote it.
It’s interesting that you should ask because I do that song in my show quite a bit. It’s really a singer’s song. It’s just a great song to sing. Linda Ronstadt loves that song. She recorded it. Once a singer does that song, they’re going to be doing that song for the rest of their career because it’s got the right moves for a performer. It’s got the verses that really break down into some heartfelt, almost embarrassingly intimate conversations between this man and this woman. It was written when I was very young. That’s one of the oldest songs in my repertoire. Sometimes I start thinking, Did I write it before I got out of high school or did I write it just after? Was it one of those Jobete songs? My first job was at Motown and Jobete was their publishing arm. That was my first real job.
Your first recorded song was by The Supremes, right?
The first recorded song was a Supremes cut (“My Christmas Tree”) on their Christmas album. Just an aside, Motown was family to me. They pretty much took me in off the street. My mother had just died. I was pretty much a waif. I was a little kid walking around Hollywood with a whole bunch of songs and not much else. People would ask me what I did for a living and I would say, “I’m a songwriter.” It’s pretty funny because I never had anything recorded by any person! Then a couple of nice things happened. Dick Glasser over at Warner Bros. actually got me a cut with the Everly Brothers (“She Never Smiles Anymore”). I was on cloud nine. I thought I had made it. I still love it that I have an Everly Brothers cut. I think I may have written “Do What You Gotta Do” at Motown. I would have been about 17 years-old. All these years later to sit down at the piano and start playing the opening chords and to bite into that song and then have a tremendous reaction from the audience ... the audience always gets deep into that song. I always do the Linda Ronstadt ending, which is, [singing] “Come on back and see me, come on back and see me ...”—I don’t know whether or not I can do this—[continues singing], “Why don’t you come on back and see ...” I got the wrong key, but that’s what I call the Linda Ronstadt ending. The audience just loves it. It’s really interesting to know that that’s really one of the oldest pieces of material that I have and yet it’s still one of the best.
It truly is. One thing that has always struck me about your songs is the geographical reference points, whether it’s Wichita, Oklahoma, Phoenix, or Galvaston. What draws you to that kind of specificity?
I don’t think that I’m particularly drawn to it. I wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” first and I definitely wrote it when I was under contract to Jobete. The circumstances were really almost bizarre but the song was written for a kid who used to be on The Donna Reed Show named Paul Petersen. He had a song that was almost a novelty record called “She Can’t Find Her Keys”. He had a hit with it so it was some years later. The bloom was off the rose, so to speak. He was still interested in being a recording artist. At Motown, the door was always wide open to anybody. Berry Gordy did not see color. My first great lessons in life about relations between the races I learned at Motown. They were all very positive, reinforcing notions. There was no racism there. He wanted a song for Paul Petersen so I wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”.
One of the great stories of my life is that Motown told me that they liked the song fine but it needed a big chorus because “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is just three verses. They knew what hits were then and they knew how to put them together. It was sort of like going to post-graduate hit-making school for free. I wasn’t getting paid much, maybe $40 or $50 every once in awhile. Here is this song that they’re not now particularly interested in because I would not put a chorus in it. I was really very stubborn, even as a neophyte, about what I was going to do.
To make a long story short, I went to Johnny Rivers Music. Johnny Rivers had a big hit called “Poor Side of Town”. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” ended up as an album cut on Changes (1966). Glen Campbell was literally driving along the street somewhere listening to the radio and heard this album cut and said, “I gotta cut this song”, and ended up cutting “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. He had a big hit with it. Then, I started getting calls from Glen saying [imitates voice], “Can you write me a song about a town?” I’d say, “I don’t know. I’ll think about that.” I ended up writing “Wichita Lineman”, which I wrote in one afternoon and sent it over to them and really forgot all about it because it wasn’t finished. I was talking to Glen a few weeks later and I said, “I guess you guys didn’t go for ‘Wichita Lineman’”, and he said, “Oh, we cut that!” I said, “Well Glen that song wasn’t finished”, and he said, “It is now!” In other words, it was kind of a gravity that pulled me into the notion of writing “geographical songs”, as we say in the trade. It wasn’t so much what I wanted to do and if you look at the body of my work, you’d see that there’s only a small percentage of songs about places in my catalog but almost all of them are hits.